Flake should have fought for his beliefs

Trump: Flake smart for not seeking re-election
Trump: Flake smart for not seeking re-election

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Trump: Flake smart for not seeking re-election 01:05

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Sen. Jeff Flake vacated the field of battle-- less of a last stand than a tactical retreat, since he was on track to lose primary
  • Flake's speech betrayed impotence in face of new GOP powered by rage; his walking away concedes he knows Trump isn't going anywhere

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Since when was it heroic to give up? On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona vacated the field of battle by announcing that he won't run for re-election, delivering a remarkable speech in which he attacked the "casual undermining of our democratic norms" and the "coarsening" nature of politics under Donald Trump.

Timothy Stanley
Three Republican senators gave him a standing ovation. Outgoing Sen. Bob Corker accused the President of "debasing" the United States. Flake, he said, is "a real conservative."
But if the choice is that stark -- if Flake really is good and Trump is evil -- why not put that choice to the voters in Arizona? Because polling suggested Flake was on course to lose his primary. This wasn't a last stand. It was a tactical retreat.
    There's no disputing that Flake has real disagreement with Trump. A few years ago, he represented the kind of conservative that seemed to be insurgent and on the rise: Western, libertarian, anti-government.
    Trump's victory in the 2016 primaries stole the moment from them. If he'd been a little humbler about it, they might have tried to get along with him. But Trump's disregard for constitutional norms departs from the Barry Goldwater tradition of his party, while his name calling and crudity shocked men of religious conscience.
    Flake is a Mormon. His speech was full of the same outrage that Mitt Romney expressed during the primaries -- a sense of genuine horror that the presidency could be captured by someone apparently lacking a sense of the moral responsibilities of that office. It's astonishing, and rather wonderful, how Mormons have graduated from being mocked as weird in 2012, when Romney ran for the White House, to the voice of national conscience by 2017.
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    But there are problems with this resistance movement. One is that we can infer that it believes the rot began with Trump, that he is a unique problem in the history of the Republican Party.
    He's not.
    Before Trump there was the tea party, before him the Christian Coalition: the history of populism in the GOP is full of moral complexity. It long ago became difficult to decipher who were the moderates. Flake, for instance, compares himself to Goldwater -- the man who was surely the Trump of 1964, a presidential candidate notable for opposing the Civil Rights Act and declaring that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Flake, in his recent book, disagrees with Goldwater's stand on civil rights legislation.
    Over time, Goldwater's rebellion became Republican orthodoxy, much as I suspect Trump's will, and also one of the GOP's biggest handicaps. The GOP became the party that hated government -- but also, due to the popularity of this message, the party of government. They had to run the thing they hated.
    It could be argued that Trump owes some of his success to the legacy of that paradox. If the Republicans spent years attacking Washington, attacking liberals, attacking the state, attacking political correctness, it was only a matter of time before a guy like Trump won the nomination. Yes, some of his views are a repudiation of what ideological conservatives believe in -- particularly on trade. But the politics of rage is really only the natural, inevitable conclusion to years of raging on the right.
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    Flake is not the type to rage. He's "polite and introspective" -- and the comparison with Trump is one of the starkest one can draw in politics.
    Perhaps under Trump, the Republican base really has tipped decisively from a party of small government to one that would use government to its advantage, regardless of constitutional limits. If that is true, however, it's going to take more than politeness, more than refusing to run for office, to arrest the tide.
    Flake's speech betrayed impotence. The Republicans tried to stop Trump in the presidential primaries and failed. They tried to work with him on the White House staff and failed. He governs for himself, by his own rules and in the interests of his own constituency, a constituency that may only be one part of the wider right-wing movement but in any case dominates it for the moment because there is no serious, sustained opposition.
    The only thing that might send the strongest message that his model of leadership isn't working is a bloodbath in next year's midterm elections -- and that's the last thing Republicans want. So, in deference to the fact that he is their president, leading their party, and that his fate is linked to their own, they are stuck with Trump.
    Flake walking away concedes this fact: Trump isn't going anywhere, so I will.